Snakes, Ladders and Infinite Play
Playing well is more important than fixating on winning and losing.
A few weeks ago, my 4-year-old burst into tears while playing Snakes and Ladders. She was about to win but had just dropped from 99 to 7 on the board from a snake bite. She refused to play anymore.
This school summer, I have found myself playing a lot of snakes and ladders with my kids. My 8-year-old son, perhaps because he is older, doesn’t experience the same emotional swings. But jubilation from a-ladder-climb and the despondence from a-snake-bite is palpable, even with him. So seeing their reactions, I started thinking about ways to help them take bites and climbs into their stride.
In that process, I stumbled across the origins of the game itself. The game, now a worldwide classic, originated in ancient India. In the original conception, Snakes represented vices, and ladders represented virtues. There were more snakes than ladders - presumably to teach the players that virtuous life is hard compared to giving in to vices.
During Victorian times, the British adapted it, stripping it of the moral notions of virtue and vice, making the number of snakes and ladders equal, and called it Snakes and Ladders. Later it was introduced in America. The Americans went a step further, getting rid of evil snakes and calling it Chutes and Ladders. As with many other things, the game's evolution symbolizes the difference between western and eastern thought. The western ideal deifies winning and has resulted in more material wealth. But it leaves people anxious and spiritually weak, for which eastern traditions have much better foundations.
Despite the dilution of this ancient philosophical underpinning, I think the game, even in its current form, is an excellent metaphor for navigating life.
A random throw of dice moves you on the board (1 through 100). A snake bite drops you on the board. Some bites aren't bad - they only drop you 72 to 66 - as compared to the one that made my daughter cry. Ladders surge you forward. Some move you forward a little. But you can get lucky - there is a ladder that leapfrogs you from 21 to 82.
Reflecting on randomness in Snakes and Ladders and its parallels to everyday life, I thought about the message of one of my favorite books, Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse.
Snakes and Ladders is, what Carse would call, a Finite game. Each game has fixed rules and an outcome. If you care about just one game, a bad result will make you feel terrible. Similarly, human life is a series of Finite games - getting through school, getting a job, building a business. One cannot but not play these. They are the rite of passage in our modern world. If we let individual successes and failures of these games get to us, we suffer. It hampers our ability to play.
Carse explains in his book that Infinite players focus on playing well. They play because they enjoy playing. Infinite players understand that winning or losing is simply a consequence of playing.
When you focus on playing, enjoying, and improving your play in the Finite games, you become an Infinite player for the longer game. So whether it is a series of Snakes and Ladders games, or the game of life, Infinite Play sets you up better than fixating on winning or losing.
I decided to bring in Infinite Play within our Snakes and Ladders sessions. Instead of consoling after a loss or a bad bite and drop, I realized that I need to get kids to play multiple rounds in a single session.
So, one afternoon when we were getting ready to play, I said: “We will play five games. Don’t feel bad if you lose one.” We played, and everyone lost and won some. But I was overjoyed when after the round of 5 games, my daughter said: “Let us play some more”.
Playing some more, something else dawned on me. We can bring an infinite mindset into each game. Now when I observe one of my kids feeling the sting from a snake bite, I say: “The game is not over until it’s over.” The twists eventually come, transforming a seemingly lost game into a winning one, and vice versa.
While Snakes and Ladders is just a trivial game in the bigger scheme of things, I feel provides a rich experience for winning and losing with grace, exactly as the ancients intended.
We live in a media environment that sensationalizes outliers, both negative and positive. Overconsumption of that information diet causes constant anxiety about our futures. But we mustn’t forget that in real life, barring some rare catastrophic and ruinous events, how we play each roll of dice is what determines our future.
Soul of an Engineer
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